Boston — A year ago the contestants for the role of Democratic Idol were singing their hearts out on stages from Iowa to New Hampshire.
Some people were booing and wishing Hillary would run. Others felt that the prize -- the Democratic nomination -- seemed a little hollow. They fully expected that the Democrats would be outfoxed and outspent by a Republican wartime president.
So where are the 10 finalists for the Democratic nomination now? Here in Boston for their convention, with their winner having plenty of money and standing even or ahead in most polls. Like a group of middle-aged rock stars who have weathered ego trips, substance abuse and fights over groupies, the contestants have settled into supporting roles behind John Kerry and John Edwards. Even Dennis Kucinich woke up and joined the band by endorsing Kerry last week. They could be headed for a big hit.
How did this happen? President Bush's stubborn pursuit of a questionable war and inability to create any meaningful number of jobs unless they were at Halliburton managed to turn even the most mild-mannered Democrats into rabid partisans. Credit also goes to the Democratic activists themselves who learned from the Clinton years and had more or less put aside their ideological divisions, voting carefully and strategically. And credit, of course, goes to Kerry himself, who abandoned his cautious front-runner stance and showed the passion and courage that lay hidden beneath his senatorial demeanor.
And so as they gather in Boston, everyone has his or her place. Kerry, of course, is lead singer, with John Edwards in charge of harmony. Sen. Joe Lieberman has been back in Florida courting the elderly Jewish voters who would have delivered the state to the Democrats last time had it not been for the tragedy of something called a butterfly ballot. Ditto for Sen. Bob Graham. Former Gen. Wesley Clark has been taking on the neocons in the Bush administration who got us into Iraq. Congressman Dick Gephardt will help deliver the critical battleground states of Missouri and Ohio. And, of course, preacher Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun will join in, just in case there are any black voters out there who still think Bush is a compassionate conservative.
And what about the guy who almost became the American Idol -- Howard Dean? Dean caught many up in a campaign that was big and bold. He broke with the Washington consensus on the war in Iraq earlier than almost any other Democrat and built a truly 21st-century campaign around it. His entire campaign seemed so radical that as he surged and then faltered, some people actually expected him to wage a third-party candidacy or, at least, a convention fight. But like the drummers in the band Spinal Tap, Dean was prone to spontaneous combustion.
Nonetheless, in the months since his fatal scream, Dean has reinvented himself as the steady, self-effacing bass player of this band. He got out of the race in a timely fashion, endorsed John Kerry and set about doing one of the most important things anyone can do in this race -- make sure that no one votes for Ralph Nader.
A few weeks ago he debated Ralph Nader at the National Press Club. Never one to mince words, Dean called Nader's reasons for running "disingenuous nonsense," and exposed the fact that Nader's candidacy is being propped up by Republicans. For instance, as of the end of May, one in 10 of Nader's biggest contributors were major contributors to the Bush campaign and to the Republican National Committee. And it recently came out that in Michigan, Nader volunteers were far short of the signatures needed to get him on the ballot, so the state's Republican Party stepped in with 45,000 signatures.
Here in Boston, the conventional wisdom is that Bush is in trouble but Democratic Idol Kerry has to really shine before he can beat him. In the meantime, the Republicans are spinning away, telling people that Kerry will get 15 whole points out of this convention!
But this Democratic band has been playing in the Top 40 since March, and more Americans are committed to their candidate earlier than in any other election. So Kerry's bounce is likely to be smaller, not because his convention failed -- as the Republicans will try to tell you -- but because he is already farther along on the road to the White House than people think.
Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard University, served in the Clinton administration and is a delegate at the Democratic convention.